AN: As always, your continuing support and thoughtful reviews mean the world to me. Things are going to start to heat up between Katniss and Peeta from here on out, but I'm still taking it slow with them. Hope this chapter is enough to quench your thirst...

Chapter 8: Love

Later, after lunch, Peeta offers to clean up so my mother and I can talk alone. I try to convince him to let me clean up later since he did almost all the work already, but he insists. Keeping busy, I realize, is a two-way street for Peeta.

I lead my mother outside to the backyard. The moment the door shuts behind me, the question on the tip of my tongue all day finally boils to the surface.

"How did you do it?"

"Do what?" she asks.

"Move on" I say.

"I haven't moved on from anything" she tell me.

"But you have, you're different. The way you carry yourself, the way you speak. You can't deny that."

"I had a change in perspective, I guess you could say."

"But how did you find the strength?"

She reaches over, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear.

"You, Katniss."


"During the years I watched you take care of Prim, part of me resented you for being so much stronger than me. It made me ashamed, knowing the burden I was pushing on to you because I was too weak to do it myself. But then after you volunteered at the Reaping, I just knew I couldn't afford to be selfish anymore. I always believed in you, but never in my wildest dreams could I imagine what you were capable of. You lead an entire revolution, you emancipated everyone- you changed life as we know it..."

"And Prim's dead because of it" I tell her.

"And if she was sent into the Arena under the Capitol's control, should would have died even sooner" my mother says.

Tears sting my eyes. I know she's right, but I hate the idea of anyone trying to let me off the hook for the lives lost because of me-especially my mother and especially about my own baby sister.

"I could have done more to save her" I say.

"You can't save everyone."

"I saved Peeta. And he was more far gone than anyone."

"The world may have seen you as a Mockingjay, Katniss, but you and I both know you're only human. An extraordinary human, but a human just the same. You did everything you could, we all did-including Prim. Do you think she ever would have developed into the same mature, loving individual without your influence? She volunteered to join the fight just like you, because she saw what courage could accomplish and she wanted to do the same. And she did. For as long as she could."

"Do you miss her?"

"Every second of every day" my mother says.

"Me too" I whisper.

The Primrose bushes catch her eye. She approaches them, touching one of the buds lovingly.

"Did you plant these?" she asks.

"No, that was Peeta."

I see a look pass over my mother's face.

"Are you two living together?" she asks.

"No" I say, even though we practically do.

"Katniss, if you's okay, you know. Good even" she says "I'm still worried about how the hijacking has affect him, but even's clear he loves you again, very much. He wears his devotion on his sleeve like a prize. Part of me feels silly for ever doubting his feelings for you."

I'm not sure why, but hearing my mother says these words out-loud starts to freak me out. She isn't telling me anything I don't already know, but something about these words in particular coming out of my mother has me on edge.

"He's a friend, that's all" I tell her.

"He reminds me of your father, a bit. And the way he used to look at me- like I couldn't do a thing in the world wrong even if I tried. It made me feel stronger than I ever thought imaginable. Invincible, even."

And that's it. The thing that's making my heart race. Because I bore first hand witness to what happens to a woman after she loses her one true love. She falls apart. She becomes weak. She loses all sense of autonomy.

She's destroyed.

I think of Peeta, sweet Peeta, with his comforting touches and words of endearment. I think of the warmth that runs through me every time he walks into the room, or when our hands accidentally brush together, or when I wake up in the middle of the night to steal a kiss from his soft lips.

Oh god.

I'm in love.

Painfully, maddeningly in love with Peeta Mellark. And together we're just as doomed as star-crossed lovers as we were in the first arena as we are now...only now even more so that I love him back. I think about his dream of a family...the one I've already adamantly denied him and my stomach clenches in pain. It's just a matter of time before I lose him to a woman who can give him what he needs. And then I'll be destroyed, just like my mother.

I can't...I can't...

"I can't do this" I tell her suddenly.

"Katniss, what's wrong?" my mother asks.

"It's not what you think."

"You can deny it all you want, but it's clear to me that..."

"It's not like that with us, okay? Peeta may have feelings for me, but I don't feel the same about him. He's just a friend to me and we'll never be anything more than that, so just drop it- please" I lash out before I can stop myself.

The sound of a click behind me sends me reeling. I look over just in time to see Peeta's hurt eyes lock with mine for a moment before he goes back into the house.

He heard everything.

I feel big and small at the same time. Somehow with a few brief words, I managed to convince him of something I know in my heart to be the farthest thing from the truth.

"You should go apologize. Tell him you didn't mean it."

"But I did."

"You don't have to lie to anyone anymore, Katniss. You've got nothing left to lose and everything to gain. Remember that" she tells him.

If only she knew the truth.

My mother leaves with the promise to write and call often, while I make a half-hearted promise to venture out and visit her in the near future. She doesn't mention Gale once, and that I am grateful for. I know I'll have to approach that subject in the future, but for now it's a relief.

Like the gentleman he is, Peeta sticks around long enough to give my mother a proper send-off- he even offers to walk her out, but she declines his offer- clearly sensing the importance of us talking alone first.

Once she's gone, however, Peeta begins to collect his things without another word.

"You won't even give me a chance to explain?" I ask.

"There's nothing to explain. I get it" he says curtly.

"What you heard was out context" I try.

He gives me a dubious look.

"At least respect me enough to acknowledge I'm not an idiot" he says, making his way towards the door.

"You'll be the biggest idiot I know if you leave without talking to me" I say, grabbing his hand.

He looks down at our joined hands, a sad smile on his face.

"The games are over, Katniss. They have been for a long time. So you can drop this act for good" he tells me.

"Why does everyone keep insisting on telling me how I feel?"

"Because you keep everything bottled up inside of you- you always have. And one of these days, you're going to explode."

Peeta pulls his hand out of mine and opens the door.

Something inside me snaps. I slam the door shut and push him against it- kissing him soundly. I put everything into it. My frustration. My sadness. My hunger. I press against him, as close as I can get. My arms wrapped around his neck, holding him close- it's only a matter of time before Peeta's arms find their way around me. Between my persistent kisses and his strong grip, I find myself getting lightheaded.

The word "love" keeps floating into my head, multiplying by the second until it's the only thing I'm thinking of. Love. Love. Love.

When oxygen becomes an issues, we break apart- panting hard against each other's faces. Peeta's gaze is caught somewhere between bafflement and arousal.

"Why are you doing this to me?" he asks me softly.

Because I love you.

My heart tells me to scream it, but my head knows I'm not ready. Not to say it, at least. And besides, he wouldn't believe me- not in a million years. He'd think I was just teasing him for my own entertainment.

"I didn't mean what I said to her. I do care about you, Peeta. Of course I care about you. Why else would I be fighting so hard against it?"

"Against what?"

"This" I whisper as my lips move to claim his once again.

So instead, I move my lips to his defined jaw line, kissing a trail to his ear. I impulsively trace the shell of his ear with my tongue. When he gasps and pushes his hips against mine, I feel encouraged to continue. When I get to the column of his neck, I use my teeth to gently graze his skin. Another bold move, another jolt of his hips.

His enthusiastic reaction sends me on an emotional power-trip. It makes me want to keep exploring, every second of every day, until I find everything there is to find. I briefly wonder if it's the same for him- until his hands move down to cup my ass, giving it just enough of a squeeze to illicit a gasp from my lips. The smile he gives me right before our mouths fuse together sends a shock right down to my core.

The hunger rages on.

The next thing I know we're moving back towards the living room. I land on the couch first and Peeta is soon to follow, settling himself against me in the most intimate way possible.

"I can't lose you" I whisper against his lips.

"You won't. Katniss, I promise..."

I pull his head back down to mine, cutting him off. I can't believe there was ever a time in my life where I didn't enjoy kissing him- now it's all I can think about. But not just on my lips. I imagine him kissing every part of me and I just want more.

My hands slide down his shoulders, exploring, past the slope of his lower back. I push down, forcing his hips against mine even more. I feel his manhood pressing against me in the most delicious way, sending shivers down my spine.

Peeta must mistake this reaction for trembles of fear, because he pulls away suddenly.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine" I insist, trying to pull him back to me, but he resists again and starts to sit up.

"We should...we should stop" he says. I can tell it's taking everything he has to use restraint. But just this once, I wish he wasn't such a gentleman.

I sit up next to him, his face cradled in my hands as I speak the words clearly.

"Don't pull away from me."

As I learn forward to kiss him again, I watch the resolve melt away in his features as he surrenders himself to me. Feeling bolder, I move to straddle his lap so our thighs touch. Peeta makes a noise in the back of his throat as I rub my hips against his, setting a slow pace. Soon our mouths break away- foreheads pressed together, we keep eye-contact as I increase the pressure and speed of my hips. Peeta's breathing becomes more and more labored until he's practically panting. His head hangs back against the couch, while his hands have my hips in a vice-grip.

I pick up my pace even more, consumed with the desire to find out what happens next.

A loud knock on the door jolts both of us out of the moment.

"Katniss? You home?"

It's Haymitch. And he's opening the door before either of us have time to stop it from happening. I roll off Peeta, and hurry to my feet- despite my legs feeling like jelly.

"What are you doing here?" I ask, breathless, just as he barges in.

"I just came by to..." he trails off.

One glance at my mused hair, bruised lips, and flushed cheeks...and I know we've been caught.

"I thought your mother was visiting today?" he says.

"She left" I tell him, blushing even more if possible.

A small smile tugs at his lips.

"I can see that" Haymitch says.

I roll my eyes, hurrying into the kitchen to hide my mortification.

"Aren't you going to stand up and greet me, son?" I can hear him ask Peeta, who no doubt has draped a blanket over his lap by now.

"In a minute" is his curt reply.

Haymitch's laughter fills the living room.

TBC :)